The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

The Druid’s Garden: Principles of Sacred Gardening March 10, 2019

Part of my own Druid's Garden!

Part of my own Druid’s Garden!

One of the greatest blessings of gardening and growing things is the deep energetic connections that you can develop with plants. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February, where I tend it and keep it sheltered from the winter weather, to the planting and mulching of that small pepper in late May. This relationship continues as I nurture it into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and the actual peppers start to emerge. I monitor that pepper plant for insects and disease and do what I can to ensure its success. Finally, I watch the peppers grow large and fat in the heat of the summer. At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that pepper plant. When I eat the pepper in late August, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it. When I save the seed from that pepper for next season, the relationship becomes even stronger. The pepper will not be casually wasted, given how much energy has been put into it. We are connected; that connection is sacred. The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence that I create with the plants. This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing and preserving some of my own food and in dedicating myself to gardening as a sacred practice. You wouldn’t know the difference between a factory farmed pepper or your home-grown pepper if the factory farmed pepper is all you’ve ever eaten. Someone growing up in a non-industrialized culture from birth would learn to recognize and nurture that sacred connection between the human and the soil, and the codependency that connection provides. However, for people growing up in western industrialized cultures, not only do we not have the connection—we don’t’ even realize one is missing.

 

Whether we are growing in pots on our porch or in a big garden, all gardens offer us opportunity for these connections. It is in these gardens that we can begin to cultivate and to understand the sacred: a sacred awareness of the plants and their cycles; a sacred awareness of the magic of the seed and the soil; and a sacred awareness of our relationship to the growing things, the mystery of life.

And yet, conventional ‘gardening wisdom’ is often full of things that aren’t that healthy for cultivating natural relationships.  I had hoped, a few years ago, to get a Master Gardener certification–once I saw the amount of pesticides and non-organic methods they taught, I went the permaculture design route instead.  I think a lot of the conventional wisdom about gardening, whether its importing non-natural additives, spraying, etc, taks us further from a sacred relationship with the living earth.  Given that, in this post, as I’m excited to start gardening again soon and have been starting many seeds, I wanted to share some ideas and ideas for a true “Druid’s Garden!”

Sacred Gardening: Wheel of Principles

In order to think about sacred gardening, druid gardening, I’ve developed a “wheel of principles” that help me make decisions about my garden. Some of these are rooted in permaculture design, others are more druidical in nature, still others are insights I’ve gained over the years of living and working with this approach.  Think of the wheel of principles like general ideas to think about or guidelines; ways of ensuring a sacred experience while you are starting to tend your plants for the coming year.

 

Working on the Inner and the Outer

Working with Spirit and Matter

Working with Spirit and Matter (an original painting I did a few years back!)

This basic magical principle, derived from hermetic magical practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on the physical. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. In the disenchanted world we live in, the non-physical, spiritual aspects to various activities are simply not considered—gardening is no exception. We’ll be working with this principle in every chapter of this book—it is cornerstone to sacred gardening. 

 

Harmony with nature

Nature provides us an incredible amount of lessons and patterns to work with—by studying nature, we learn all we need to know about how to live regeneratively.  This was the basic practice that allowed permaculture design to develop, and its similarly the basic understanding that drives our actions.  A big part of the challenge with harmony with nature is that a lot of people don’t know how to live harmoniously any longer, and many of the other principles in this chapter and this book give clear guidance in how to do so.

 

The most basic principle to sacred gardening is to create a landscape that is in harmony with nature, rather opposed to it, and to create a landscape that produces yields beyond food for the human being. Yes, you read that might—sacred gardening is about much more than vegetables, and embraces the permaculture ethical principles of earth care, people care, and fair share. This requires us to question everything we know, or think we know about growing plants, to reject the urge to consume, and to throw out a good deal of the “conventional” wisdom that has been ported into our heads in the name of consumerism. This is because most conventional wisdom has a price tag attached, and rarely is anything you purchase to put in your garden from a big box store is healthy to you or to the land.

 

We think of a “yield” from a garden, the amount of vegetables, fruits, and herbs you can harvest is likely the first (and possibly only) thing that comes to mind. But if we are thinking about gardening as a regenerative practice for our lands, earth care also is critical. This means that our yield can also be habitat, nectar, improved soil fertility, improved biodiversity, better water retention, beauty, community, a place for meditation and prayer, and so many other things. In other words, if we extend our idea of what a yield from the garden looks like, then we can yield as much for the land as four ourselves.

 

Parts to the Whole

This principle is derived from permaculture design, and it can be easily illustrated in any forest. Our culture currently encourages metaphors that suggest that things are not related to the other, when in reality, what affects one thing affects many. So this principle asks us to consider how the parts are related to each other and to the whole. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together as a system, rather than in isolation.  In specific garden terms, this might be practicing integrated pest management, working to plant guilds and do companion planting, and understand how your garden ties to–and supports–other kinds of life.  Perhaps you grow sunflowers and amaranth and leave them out all winter to provide forage for hungry sparrows!  Gardens shouldn’t be in competition with nature, but rather, support

 

Layered Purposes

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

This principle is also derived from permaculture design.  It suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations.  When we engage in sacred action, we can use this principle to help us find activities that allow us to address more than one purpose.

 

Think about what you are planting and its relationship to everything else. Permaculture design asks us to de-compartmentalize our thinking and realize that everything is connected.  Many plants do well with certain companion plants (as epitomized in the book title Carrots Love Tomatoes) but not necessarily with others. Certain herbs and plants, like chives, lavender, nasturtium, and garlic, can ward away pests and critters, eliminating the need for chemical deterrents. A garden hedge of wildflowers that bloom different times can provide beneficial insects homes and food—these insects help keep the pests down in your garden. Even within a home, thinking about these principles can be used to create systems that require little inputs—home aquaponics is a fantastic way to grow tons of fresh vegetables—just feed the fish! Composting not only reduces food waste and what goes into a landfill, it provides incredible finished compost for use in the soil. We see here the idea of both embracing diversity and building an ecosystem and making sure each plant in that ecosystem is chosen carefully to have multiple functions when possible.

 

Embrace Renewables

Stemming from the idea of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. The truth is, we have finite resources on this planet; things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy) are better than those that are not (like coal for energy). This principle is derived from permaculture design, but it also can be found in many other places.

 

Support diversity

This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs. We might think about this in terms of polycultures rather than monocultures.  A perennial garden is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield.

 

Monocultures refer to a single plant (like a field of soybeans) while polycultures refer to many plants sharing the same space. Polycultures are found all throughout nature; monocultures generally are not. Polycultures can work together, where different plants accumulate nutrients (dynamic accumulators), fix nitrogen, provide forage and nectar for insects, provide food for the gardener, and so on. Monocultures do not regenerate the soil, they do not provide a healthy or balanced ecosystem, and they encourage explosions of certain kinds of pest populations due to the concentration of many of the same plant in an area. The largest monocrop grown in the USA is the lawn; but many other monocrops are also present (wheat, corn, soy, etc). Mimicking nature and using nature as our guide, we can shift from cultivating monocrops to polycultures.

 

Perennials always come back!

Perennials always come back!

Along with this, we might carefully consider what that we plant and those plants’ relationship with the land. Annual agriculture (that is, your typical plants like tomatoes, corn, zucchini, beans, and so on) require the yearly work of bed prep, weeding, sowing, seed starting, and harvesting—this disrupts soil ecology and causes extra work. Shifting to use at least some perennials in your growing means that the plant is planted once—and only once—and then the soil is not disrupted again and the plant can grow and be abundant. Most of our most balanced ecosystems occurring in nature have more perennials or self-sowing annuals than the tender annuals we typically use as food crops. Entire books are written on this subject (see resources, Appendix A), so I won’t go into too much depth here. But if we are thinking about building an ecosystem, we should consider the role of our perennial crops—herbs, nuts, fruits, berries—in that garden.

 

Reflect and Revise

Reflective activity, when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions, is a cornerstone of sacred action and its used in nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Quite contemplation (through discursive meditation, discussed in Exercise 1 below, or simply sitting quietly and pondering), is critical for this kind of work. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.

 

A sacred, sustainable garden is not a fast process. The soil takes years to establish, the seeds take time to grow, perennials, trees and shrubs take time to bear fruit, compost takes time to make, all these stress time and patience. Just as importantly, we have to grow our knowledge to really achieve the kind of relationship with the land that we want to have. The idea that we’ll have a perfect garden in one season is simply not realistic. Like the tree that takes years to bear fruit, we must also realize that gardening, like other forms of growth, takes patience and time. Even growing sprouts on your counter, which is about the easiest way of growing anything, requires patience and time (in days, rather than weeks, months, or years). Understand that sacred gardening is a learning process and the best way to learn is to constantly educate yourself.  Take classes, help friends, visit farms, read books, watch videos—anything that will give you new perspectives on growing food. You can see a complete list of books to get you started in the appendix.

 

Reclaim Waste

Excellent compost bins! Bins in various stages

Excellent compost bins!

This is another principle derived from permaculture design. Waste is a resource that has not been given a proper place—we can think about “waste” in new ways. Human waste and urine, for example, can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling!

 

When it comes to growing things, we want to make sure that everything that we grow does not go to waste and whatever nutrients are in the soil go back if at all possible. I am always saddened when I go out for bags of leaves in the fall and find whole bags of plants ripped up from someone’s garden in the brown “compost” bags they place on the curb. After spending a whole season with the plants, my neighbors would rather send them “away” than make a compost pile and add those nutrients back into the soil. These same people then go to the store and buy bags of compost and fertilizer (again, demonstrating the consumer mindset of consumeà throw awayàconsumeà throw away). I think this practice demonstrates how little modern people really understand about growing our food from a permaculture-informed and ethical perspective.

 

Consider any waste streams that can be integrated into a gardening system, like composting. Even for those growing food inside their homes, a worm composting system combined with container gardens can make use and re-use of many nutrients. For those on the more radical side, humanure (that is, composting your own waste) is always an option! Even when I’m growing sprouts on my counter, I save the water from rinsing to water my other house plants—again, turning “waste” water into something needed.

 

 

Spiraling Changes

Strawberry Spiral - Freshly Planted

Strawberry Spiral – Freshly Planted

Rather than starting big and going all out, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks. Unexpected issues—and opportunities—can arise as part of the climb.  With each step you get further along and deeper into the practice. The other way of climbing is kind of moving along, bit by bit, and then suddenly looking out and realizing you are way higher than you thought! Shifting to regenerative practices are really no different: when we begin the ascent, we have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we also have to take our time and make sure what we are enacting is permanent and self-sustaining or our efforts are in vain. Or, we might find that in our many daily meanderings, we are doing more than we realize. Both are valuable insights!

 

One of the biggest mistakes that new and enthusiastic gardeners and sacred activists do is to go crazy, convert a huge portion of their land to various gardens in one or two seasons, and then be overwhelmed with the maintenance of those gardens. This is exactly what happened to me on my homestead—within three years, I had all but eliminated an acre of lawn and replaced it with perennials, an annual vegetable garden, herb gardens, fruit trees, and more. And while it was incredible and diverse and all of the things I’m writing about in this section—it was also way too much for me to manage. This example nicely illustrates the concept of spiraling changes: start small, work slow, and allow things to naturally unfold. See how it is managing a small garden (maybe 2 4×10’ beds) and build accordingly. Consider perennials for less intensive management over time as well.

 

Living in Gratitude

Gratitude is something missing from our everyday lives in industrialized culture, and bringing gratitude back into our actions is useful in all cases, and certainly, in a garden.  Gratitude practices for me include developing shrines to honor nature and her spirits, making regular offerings, respecting the plants and life itself with respectful planting, harvesting, and so on.

 

These are some–of many principles–that I try to live and grow by with my own relationship to the living earth.  I hope you find something in here worth taking with you–and gardening with this year!  I’d love to hear from you on other principles for sacred gardening that you use!

 

Sowing the Seeds of the Future: Spiritual Insights on Seed Starting and Growth December 16, 2013

Sprouting lettuce for spring planting

Sprouting lettuce for spring planting

There is so much magic in a tiny seed. Dormant, still, silent, the seed speaks of unimaginable potential. The seed is the first—and last—step in the cycle of most plant life; they complete the circle of life. Seeds can lay dormant for years, decades, and in some cases, centuries.  When parched earth finally gets rain, when the fires die down and only ash remains—the seeds carry new life forth.

 

Growing a plant from seed is a magical experience. Through this process, a magical transformation takes place both in the druid gardener and in the seed. You nurture and support the seed, giving it rich soil, light, warmth, and water. The seed nurtures you, providing lessons, healing, and strength. In the briefest of moments, the seed sprouts, sending tendrils up into the heavens and down into the earth, uniting the solar currents of the sun and the telluric currents of the earth. For some fast-growing plants, you can literally see them growing early in their life cycle. This same process is mirrored within the soul of the grower, hope and life are born anew.

 

As the seed springs forth, its first two leaves (called cotyledons) are not “true leaves” but rather represent the seed’s first tender steps into a larger world. Once true leaves develop, the plant takes on the characteristics of its variety.  Like a human infant, springing forth is only the first step of the journey of growth and development.

 

Sorting seeds in December!

Sorting seeds in December!

I know that for many, the period between Alban Arthan and Imbolc can be challenging because of the darkness and cold. But I, sitting near my warm fire with the seeds of hope and life, enjoy such times. As a druid gardener, December and January are times of such joy, for these are the times when I return to my seeds. I spend weeks sorting through saved bags of seeds, remembering seeds given to me from friends, re-establishing relationships with seeds I have been saving for years, or studying new seed packets I purchased.  Part of this is just to reconnect to the plants, to look forward to what is to come.

But, this is so I can plan how much seed I need to start and when I need to start it. For the seeds I’ve saved, I think about the relationship I’ve shared with that plant, that strain of seeds. Now in my fourth year of serious organic gardening, I have strains of kale, lettuce, beans, tomatoes, corn, peppers, and herbs that I have had many years of friendship with—the seeds represent a way to carry our connection through the darkest of times before it begins anew.  As I sit with my packages of seeds, I reflect upon our past history and look forward to future harvests.

 

This year, dear readers, I suggest that you sow at least a few seeds. If you have the space for a larger garden, consider sheet mulching an area in the spring  and planting some vegetables. Create a sacred garden space for growth—of the druid and of the garden.  Growing a bit of your own food puts you in a sacred relationship with the land and its cycles—and all of it begins with the seed that you grow. If you only have room for a few pots on a porch or a windowsill, you can still experience the magic and teachings of the humble seed. I suggest starting some herbs (mint, oregano, or chives are all very easy to grow) or growing some vegetables in containers.

 

Once you start your seeds, consider your relationship to the plants.  I have found that plants really enjoy music, and I play my flutes and panflute for them often.  I speak to them, listen to their stories and secret tales, and open myself up to their teachings.  This is a very personal process, but you will your way. Meditation with the seedlings can provide great insights.  Connect with the spirit of that plant—each species has a spirit, and you can see that spirit out and learn from it.

 

If you decide to start seeds, ask around.  Chances are, someone you know has seeds and is willing to share.  If you are purchasing seeds, it is important to know that not all seeds are created equal.  The seeds of our ancestors were all what is now known as “heirloom” and “open pollinated” and could be easily saved from year to year and were adapted to the localized climates that they lived in. The seeds of today—including nearly all you would purchase in a big box store—are often genetically modified and hybridized. GMO and hybrid seeds are modified so that you can’t save them, and often have other modifications to the plant and/or are treated with chemicals. Energetically, these seeds represent the worst of humanity’s shattered relationship with nature, and buying them supports industries that are actively causing harm to our planet.

 

For seeds that are open-pollinated and heirloom, you can visit the Seed Saver’s Exchange, Horizon Herbs, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, or High Mowing Seeds.  For information on how to start and save seeds, the book Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners (Ashworth and Cavagnaro, 2002) is a wonderful reference and one that I have used for many seeds.  I also have a post on seed saving spinach and lettuce seed this blog.

 

There is no greater magical gift in the world than that of a seed, and no greater magical act than that of growth.  If you have questions about seeds, seed starting, or magical gardening please feel free to contact me or respond here.

 

*I’d also like to acknowledge that some of my insights gained in this post came through mediation from the first knowledge lecture in Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn system (which I have been studying for the last 8 months).

 

Embracing the Sacred and Understanding the Druidic Garden: Growing and Preserving Your Own Food September 7, 2013

Some recently canned foods--this whole cabinet is full!

Some recently canned foods–this whole cabinet is full of hundreds of jars of jam, sauce, and pickles!

When I was a child, I used to read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  In her books, Laura spends a lot of time talking about food preservation–slaughtering the pig, making maple sugar, making “head cheese”, sowing crops, cutting hay for the animals, cutting and storing ice in the ice house, threshing wheat, making butter, digging potatoes, and so forth.  This was an incredibly important part of the lives of the Ingalls family. The book about Sam Gribley, who runs away to the mountains to live off the land, My Side of the Mountain is very much the same–although its set in a more modern time, Sam spends most of his time talking about providing for his own needs through foraging and trapping.  And in each of these books, I’m struck by how much of each of the books are devoted to the basic necessities of human survival: food and shelter.  But it wasn’t just that they were preserving food and surviving–it was the manner in which they survived.  When Sam talks about his relationship with the wild strawberries, and the loss when the old woman comes and makes him help her pick them all, he describes a sacred relationship.  When Laura writes about her relationship with their family’s horses, horses the family depended on for plowing and transportation, the relationship is sacred. When Laura’s family asks neighbors for help for building their home, their home becomes rooted in that community.

 

The last few generations of Americans–certainly my own– have typically not lived in a society where we have the knowledge (or, often, desire) to physically provide for our any of our own needs. When I grew up, we occasionally ate venison that my uncle hunted, we ate zucchini and other veggies from the garden when they were available, we ate some of mom’s canned sauce or beans, but most of what we ate we purchased.  The relationship that most of us have with our food was one of an exchange–hard-earned money in exchange for this or that preserved, packaged good. I think my experiences of our home garden were less common than most children who grew up in the 1980’s–this was the real start of “convenience” foods that required very little work or preparation (TV dinners, heavily processed fast foods, etc.). The 1980s, as John Michael Greer reminds us in his newest book Green Wizardry, were the backlash era against the progress/appropriate tech/homesteading movements of the 1970’s, and unfortunately, pushed Americans further down the path of consumption.

 

I, like many of my generation and the generation before and generation after me, have grown up in a time where we depend upon others (often, large agribusiness or corporations) for our food (and clothing, shelter, heat, transportation, and livelihoods).  And while most of us don’t engage in labor-intensive food production, we are also depending upon a system that has removed our sacred relationship with food. We also exchange our time for money in other kinds of work; some of which is much less fulfilling than growing one’s own food. The food we eat is often mass produced with unacceptable ethical standards, from pesticide use to shipping with fossil fuels to genetic manipulation to migrant worker rights violations.  When we eat that food, we eat of all of the energies that produced it.

 

More jars--this is before I've canned apples!

More jars–this is before I’ve canned apples!

The spiritual dimensions of this cannot be understated.  When one is eating food that one has not grown/foraged/slaughtered, one is bringing in unknown energetics and processes into one’s own body.  That food, if it comes from a big grocery chain, is likely 100’s, if not 1000’s of miles removed from the land one inhabits, which creates energetic distance.  Further, one’s relationship with that food is often a constructed image, a brand name product (I’m now reading Chris Hedges’ book, Empire of Illusion, where he talks about the illusion of the image/brand at length).  The sacred relationship with food is lost.

 

I have come to understand that gardening, especially using druidic principles, is all about relationship building; building a sacred relationship with your food. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February to the early growth of the plant in March while the cold winter continues outside, to the planting and mulching of that plant into my garden in late May.  This relationship continues as I

Ears of corn!

Ears of corn!  The most beautiful sight to behold!

nurture it as it grows into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and later little green peppers start to emerge.  Finally, I wait for that pepper to ripen in early September.  At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that plant.  When I eat that pepper, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it.  When I can that pepper and turn it into salsa or freeze it for later, I am sustaining that relationship over time.  When I save the seed for next season, the relationship becomes all the stronger.  We are connected; that connection is sacred.  That sacred connection extends and extends to all the land–everything becomes more sacred by the simple act of growing and eating one’s own food.  The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence of you and the plant.

 

This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing–and preserving–my own food.  This is a lesson that I’ve come to over a long period of time.  I think that people who grow up in a culture where providing for one’s needs is common and where reliance upon the land allows that sacred connection to form from birth.  If you read any stories or myths from Native American tribes, you see this in everything that is written.  But for someone like me, someone who did not grow up in a culture that nurtured that sacred connection, I had to seek this out and discover it on my own.  When the sacred connection occurs, the shift is striking.  I’m amazed and filled with wonder each time I set foot in my garden and watch my plants growing.  I am filled with reverence and respect with each egg I pull out of my chicken coop.   When my tomatoes blighted this year (which I will write about soon), I felt their suffering.

 

As we move into forty or so years of convenience foods, fast foods, and the like, the skills of food procurement (through growing, trapping, hunting) and preservation (through fermentation, canning, drying, smoking) are not practiced by most of our population.  Even for someone like me, who wants to know the skills, learning the old ways requires a lot of resources that aren’t necessarily easy to come by.  I think about my meager skills, and despite years of hard effort and learning everything I can, I’d be unable to provide for all of my needs.  But as I continue to grow, my sacred connection with the land takes on a new meaning.  I am her caretaker, as she is mine.  When I take her fruits into my body, I am nourished and blessed.  This is the most sacred of sacred connections, and it makes you respect the food down to the last bite.